Do you get confused in the canned tomato aisle of the supermarket? I sure do. Canned tomatoes come in so many different forms—whole peeled tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato purée, tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, etc.—that it’s enough to drive you crazy!
All I wanted to do was make a simple tomato sauce. But between the labeling nightmare I was facing in the supermarket this past weekend, and the hysteria of shoppers around me loading up on food with the impending arrival of Hurricane Sandy, I was getting pretty darn cranky.
For years, I’ve always bought canned plum tomatoes packed in juice, not in purée. What irked me was that so many brands today fail to specify that distinction in large type on the front of the label. Notice the two cans above. Both say peeled tomatoes, but La Squisita’s are packed in purée, while Sclafani’s are packed in juice. The only way to find out is to check the fine print on the ingredient list. It also seemed as though there are fewer brands that pack tomatoes in juice. Could canned tomatoes in purée be winning out over canned tomatoes in juice?
Curious to see just how different a packing in juice versus purée might make on my tomato sauce, I bought two cans of both. There’s an obvious difference when you open the cans. The tomatoes are barely indistinguishable from the purée, whereas the tomatoes are instantly visible in the tomatoes packed in juice . I puréed the contents of the cans separately in the blender, and made the exact same simple tomato sauce (garlic cooked in some oil, puréed tomatoes, and halved onions the way Marcella Hazan does it). Each batch was cooked in the same pot on the same burner for the same length of time.
The outcome? Hard as it still is for me to believe it, there really wasn’t much difference in the consistency of the sauces. The tomatoes packed in juice made a sauce that wasn’t quite as thick as the one from the tomatoes packed in purée, but it was barely noticeable. What was obvious to the eye was that the tomatoes in juice made a paler red sauce, while the tomatoes in purée produced a darker red sauce.
And the flavor? Ah, that’s where the contrast was most apparent. The tomatoes in juice made a more balanced sauce with both sweet and tangy elements. The tomatoes packed in purée made a more intense and tart sauce. Of course, I could add a little sugar to temper the tang, but even so, I preferred the sauce made from tomatoes packed in juice.
The takeaway? Whether your whole tomatoes come packed in juice or purée, you’ll still end up with a decent sauce. So don’t drive yourself crazy in the tomato aisle!